WEST VALLEY CITY — When Bobby Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, decided to visit one Baptist church in all 50 states within 25 days, he said he didn't know what to expect.
The silver-haired, charismatic preacher from Daytona, Fla., likens his U.S. trek aboard a specialized tour bus to the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale.
"We've sort of been inhaled by this thing," Welch told Utah Southern Baptists from all over the state, who gathered last weekend at the First Baptist Church of West Valley City to hear the head of their faith deliver his message.
Welch says Southern Baptists have lapsed into complacency, and in a faith where saving souls through baptism is paramount, that is not a good thing.
"I felt convicted to do this in 25 travel days," Welch said. "To get out of my comfort zone. . . . We're all going to have to get out of our comfort zone."
From struggling churches in some of the largest inner cities to more humble rural congregations, Welch said he chose a wide variety of churches to visit. "I just want to hear from people and talk to them," he said. "I believe it's time for this convention to take a turn," to reach a "lost world."
In a time of terrorism, uncertainty and confusion, Welch said Southern Baptists need to "get out of the fort-building business and into the bridge-building business." Since being elected for a two-year term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention last June, Welch says he has made it his goal to spark a fire in the hearts of Southern Baptists.
Welch said he has challenged Southern Baptists to what he calls his " 'Everyone Can' Kingdom Challenge." Part of that challenge will be to get Southern Baptists to baptize one million new members.
It's a tall task, Welch admits, but he sees the alternative being the Southern Baptist Convention ending up in "the junk yard of denominationalism." Welch says there are more than 16 million Southern Baptists in the United States.
West Valley pastor Jim Harding said what Welch is doing is unprecedented for a convention president. "Never in my 50 years as a Southern Baptist have I seen a president do something so ambitious," Harding said.
The timing of Welch's visit to Utah last weekend raised some eyebrows, as it came during the biannual LDS general conference.
In the past, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention have openly vowed to save the souls of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This drew tensions when the group held its annual convention in Salt Lake City in 1998.
When asked if his visit carried any sort of message to the members of the LDS Church, Welch said he was not aware that the LDS Church was holding its conference, adding that the timing was purely coincidental.
Welch gave a lively sermon inside the First Baptist Church, drawing shouts of "Amen" and "Praise Jesus" from the audience. But his presence did not go unnoticed by evangelical street preachers outside, who gathered to protest LDS general conference but also gathered outside the First Baptist Church to protest Welch and Utah Baptists.
"He ought to go outside Temple Square protesting," said preacher Ruben Israel from Los Angeles. "Why weren't they at the temple?"
Welch said the protesters had no affiliation with his group.
First Baptist members were told to ignore the protesters while on their way to knock on local doors to spread their word.
Welch suggested that they tell the protesters that they are too busy doing "God's work" to talk to them.